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Martin Hickman: Shopping – the free and easy way

A stranger turned up at my door last week expecting a free cot. I helped her load it into her car. A few days later a 28-inch Sony Trinitron widescreen TV appeared in our front room, delivered by two sweating neighbours.

My wife likes to think of this exchange of gifts as "karma"; when you offer something of value on freecycle, the free goods website, someone returns the favour by offering something you need or want. However you view it though, freecycle has proved a nifty money-saver for thrifty householders in the recession.

To those who haven't been gripped in its philanthropic embrace, "Freecycle" is a bit like a eBay; people list things they no longer want online and other web users pop round to pick them up – only no money changes hands. Payment is made in smiles and thanks.

Since Deron Beal, an environmental activist, started freecycle in Tucson, Arizona, in May 2003, it has spread around the world like a Mexican wave to 85 countries including France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and China.

The first British branch opened in London in October 2003 and the UK now boasts 494 groups, with 1.7 million members who list and exchange gifts through Yahoo's website. Each freecycle community – they are divided up via towns or areas – resembles a 24-hour virtual car boot sale. And just like a real car boot sale, the goods can be swooped on in minutes.

Sometimes people list "Wanted" items such as an iPod, which can sound pretty opportunistic. Sometimes requests seek things no longer made by manufacturer, such as a grill handle for an Electrolux electric cooker, usefully filling in gaps in the commercial world.

A random trawl of one branch last week revealed the following items offered for free: an old office coat and hat stand; a Playstation 2, a wall-mounted lamp for a bunk bed ("originally from Ikea, a long time ago"), a carved chair frame, a 26-inch Bush TV, a single, "dusty", blue ceramic lamp, a Sony cassette deck, a garden rake and a pine-effect desk. The equally eclectic "Wanted" posts included an Epson D88 printer, a greenhouse or polytunnel, a Soda Stream, girls' ballet clothes, an electric typewriter and "crockery."

And, judging by the thank you messages, a Magimix mixer, a piano and some sleeping bags had changed owners in the past few days.

Scanning freecycle for the consumer goods of bygone years, or in some cases last year, opens a window into people's attics and the corners of their rooms. My wife keeps flipping open the laptop for a peek, but I can't really complain: a new Ikea desk and chair, the Sony, which I had refused to buy new to avoid being sucked into the TV arms race, and clothes for a five-year-old boy have arrived in our house in the past two weeks.

The Hickman household's gifts to west London have been less impressive: the wooden cot, two stairgates, a ladder and a box of old videos, albeit with some of my favourite films rendered unwatchable by the broken video. Every day, across the UK, similar exchanges are taking place. A bit like Christmas every day, between strangers.

Freecycle's motto is "Changing the World One Gift at a Time" and the network is a considerable force for good, saving tonnes of goods from landfill and doing away with the hassle of placing low-value items in classified ads. Obviously, it also supplies people with things they would like and which they might otherwise buy new, further reducing strain on raw materials.

But perhaps the nicest thing about it is that strengthens communities and links people, fostering the idea that strangers are not a scary bunch of would-be burglars, but ordinary people, willing to give a hand. And an old lamp, fridge-freezer, hat-stand, 28-inch Sony Trinitron TV...

Heroes & villians

Heroes: Peter Tollington

Readers outside London may be unaware of the absurd propaganda campaign that is run by London Underground to persuade "customers" that the trains run on time (something we expect), including reminders that "Such and such a line is operating a good service" and the euphemism "regulating the service", i.e. delaying a quick journey. Last week I saw this frank note at Notting Hill Station: "I apologise for the severe disruption to the train service yesterday evening," wrote Mr Tollington, general manager of the Central and Waterloo & City Lines. "Unfortunately a person under a train at Stratford forced us to partially suspend the service whilst recovery work took place.... I am sorry for the resulting delay to your journey." Note his direct language and how he takes responsibility for a problem (beyond his control). If only all erring managers showed such humility.

Villain: The Football Association

On the plus side, the FA appealed to viewers of England's match against Croatia to play the game themselves by joining a local club (why have they only just started doing this?). On the downside, the message was on the electronic pitchside boards whose bright flickering adverts irritatingly distract attention from the action.